Originally published at www.thefilmyap.com on December 18th, 2015.
There are spoilers here. There have to be. Turn back if you haven’t watched “The Force Awakens.”
“The Force Awakens” is good, not great. There’s a lot to love: All of the new characters show huge amounts of promise, the humor is on-point and the action sequences are stellar. But there’s a lot in the movie that doesn’t land, and as the story progresses it begins to spiral out, too afraid to do anything new. Rapturously good characters and sequences are balanced by lousy story and lousier storytelling. It is the first “OK” Star Wars movie.
Thirty years after “Return of the Jedi,” Luke Skywalker is missing. Something happened. The Empire’s remnants are resurgent in the Outer Rim as the First Order, where the nascent New Republic has little influence. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), along with her hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), lead a small resistance in an effort to tamp down the First Order’s growing power. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is the funky bad dude with a shocking back story and a cool lightsaber; he kills a lot of people and freaks out rookie Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), who runs away and meets up with fellow orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger on a junk planet who happens to have uncanny Force abilities. Together with Han Solo and Chewbacca, the two orphans go on an adventure to find Luke.
That’s the story, but not really.
“The Force Awakens” is a collection of really great character interactions (Boyega & Isaac, in particular, are amazing, and total shipping fodder), action sequences (the final lightsaber battle is a return to form) and humor (Boyega and Ford, wowza), strung together in a story that loses itself. From the opening crawl, the movie promises a search for Luke Skywalker — but it doesn’t deliver on that promise, instead contenting itself to another plot to “destroy the Death Star” (here known as the Starkiller) that clearly even the characters are completely bored with. Sure, the characters talk about Luke a lot and want to find him, but there is never really an active search for him, and he’s ultimately found because R2-D2 decides to wake up. That’s it.
Very little in “The Force Awakens” is explained. A lot has happened in 30 years, and while some of that mystery is fun, other choice mysteries feel a bit like director / co-writer J.J. Abrams is off thinking he’s clever again. In particular, the relationship between Han Solo and Kylo Ren, while the basis of some great scenes, feels dramatically unexplored. Other aspects of the world also feel woefully lacking. In particular, the First Order barely differs from the Empire; we don’t understand why the Republic doesn’t care about the First Order’s sniper-shotgun Death Star, and, given what we know from the rest of the series, there is no clear reason why Jedi would make any real difference in this conflict. Abrams & Co. are clearly trying to harken back to the simplicity of the Rebellion, the Empire and the Force from the original trilogy, but the problem is that “The Force Awakens” is a sequel to those films, and those conflicts were resolved. Attempting to return to that simplicity while incorporating the changes made to the foundation in previous episodes only makes for a muddled, frustrating story world.
While all the characters are great, two in particular stand out as emblematic of the dueling faces of “The Force Awakens.” Kylo Ren is like no other Force user in the series. He’s angry, dramatic, childish, fierce. He has no control. He is not committed completely to the Dark Side but desperately wants to be, which is something we have never seen. He is Anakin Skywalker done correctly, and his decisions in the movie have a real resonance. He is a revelation. On the flip side, Rey, while thrillingly able and substantial for a young woman lead, is also given far too little direction. Sure, she figures out how to use the Force and finds a new family, but we don’t watch as she learns these lessons. She becomes a secondary character towards the end of the movie. Development just sort of comes to her.
As the third act progresses into a bizarrely unnecessary retread of “A New Hope,” “The Force Awakens” begins to feel as tragic as its lead villain. The beauty of “A New Hope” is that every character meets their conclusion in the Death Star trench run. Luke begins his path to Jedi-hood; Han chooses to be a friend over a scoundrel; Leia avenges Alderaan. The incorporation of a Starkiller in “The Force Awakens” just doesn’t serve any real purpose for the emotional journeys of the main characters. Rey and Finn could have shown themselves to be brave and loyal in any scenario; Han and Kylo could have ended their tender moment in any context. The destruction of the Starkiller has nothing to do with Rey’s fight with Kylo. It has nothing to do with anything. It raises the stakes absurdly in a story whose strengths are in the intimate character moments.
“The Force Awakens” delivers the thrills, the spills, the kills. It is a thoroughly entertaining, well-made movie that is a testament to the power of a four billion-dollar checkbook. It isn’t perfect; it isn’t even “great.” But it’s good, on the balance. It is a movie worth seeing and perhaps seeing again. In 2015 we stand on the precipice of a franchise completely redefined. By 2020, “Star Wars” will have doubled the size of its franchise. The days of “Star Wars” being synonymous with something unique and rare — and, even in its lowest ebbs, oddly exquisite — are now behind us. “The Force Awakens” did not have to be a Great movie, it had to be a Good movie, to prove Star Wars, as a franchise, still had potential. “The Force Awakens,” at the very least, assures of us that.